John Stuart Mill: On Defining Pleasure

“Better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied” John Stuart Mill

Pleasure; is an interesting word indeed, it can mean many things, but what is its true worth? Obviously, we all want to enjoy the great pleasures in life, but, what is the definition of a pleasurable life? Are our ideas of pleasure really what pleasure is? How do we measure it? 

John Stuart Mill looked into moral philosophy, particularly Bentham’s, theory on Utilitarianism. In Mills works he looked at pleasure as a contributing factor to our overall happiness.

Although, Mill had the advantage and came from an intellectually privileged background, (so had help and influences around him) it did however seem from reading his work that he had a mind of his own, along with a down to earth and practical approach; namely  his emphasis on the need for social and political implications; thus how his ideas might be implemented into the real world as appose to merely use it in making moral decisions. Mill strongly believed that there must be an “indissoluble association” equally between individuals and their happiness and the good of society.  For that reason, Mill encouraged the need, for the right of individual freedom and the right to pursue personal goals freely, hence for it to be protected by legislation. Therefore, this also takes into consideration the protection of victims of a situation where ones personal actions invade on the happiness of another; known as the “harm principle”.

However, how do we know if a certain thing gives us happiness through pleasure, what and where is the proof? Is it invisible, like for example when we listen to music; since it changes our mood, sometimes it uplifts us, other times it can make us feel the pain in the song etc, either way music is a universal pleasant feeling,  but is this always good for us? As technically we could be fooling our own emotions by the sheer hypnosis of music; is it really resonating deep down into our authentic self?

“The art of music is good, for the reason, among others, that it produces pleasure; but what proof is it possible to give that pleasure is good? If, then, it is asserted that there is a comprehensive formula, including all things which are in themselves good, and that whatever else is good, is not so as an end, but as a mean, the formula may be accepted or rejected, but is not a subject of what is commonly understood by proof.” John Stuart Mill

Moreover, when listening to music, that moment of pleasure it gives us is fleeting; as once the song is over, the feeling of pleasure soon disappears along with it too! We then have to face reality!

Though, the most important aspect that Mill emphasised was his belief that for true happiness it is important to consider the quality of pleasure. Thus, he pointed out the qualitative separation of pleasures; Higher Pleasures (intellectual and moral) and Lower Pleasures (physical pleasures).  Mill believed that Higher Pleasures are superior to more Lower Pleasures, this is evidenced by his sharp statement;

“It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is only because they only know their own side of the question.” John Stuart Mill

(I have to say when I read this witty part, it did catch me off guard , and made me chuckle!)  In this profound statement Mill distinguishes between happiness and being content, in the sense that being content is not all that is seems and pretty much is a dead end. Therefore, between the two ,more value should be given to Higher Pleasures in order to be fulfilled and avoid the trappings of just being in content.

Mills part on content,  did make me think and reflect further; as whenever  I use(d) the word content I saw it as a positive, for example it meant that I am happy and supposedly have everything that I want (or think that I want) at that time and that it was the ultimate goal to be content. However, now looking at it from Mills view I see what he means, and it reminded me of a Star Trek episode in which Spock (my favourite character, probably because as a kid I had the same hair cut; which I hated back then) states;  “having is not so pleasing a thing after all, as wanting, it is not logical, but it is often true.” Spock; Star Trek

(On the note of Star Trek,  looking back as an adult and randomly re-watching  episodes I find myself thinking, oh my gosh, this is genius! I’m able to appreciate it now and see how it actually relates into our ever day life/world, even after all these years since it first appeared on our TV screens; I always learn something new from it. )

To summarise what I got from Mills work; pleasure is undoubtedly part of what makes us happy; but we should focus on the quality of the pleasures rather than quantity, in order to live a more fulfilling life.

Do you agree? Let me know your thoughts.

Speak soon,

Sophia Alisa Ali©


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5 thoughts on “John Stuart Mill: On Defining Pleasure

  1. Great article, as usual. It does raise more questions than it answers (always a good sign!). Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh says “there is no way to happiness, happiness is the way.” And that is one way of putting it. I always get confused when people speak of pleasure and happiness. What do they mean? If we live “pleased” and “happy” and our goal is strictly to experience pleasure and be happy then that’s it, done. It’s how I imagined heaven (when I was a Christian) – the most boring place in the cosmos! Everybody happy, no dissent allowed. Keep you halo on straight, flap your wings in unison and play your harp! For me, pleasure and happiness have nothing to do with my life. If I thought about them they’d be confusing and an interruption to my purpose which is to become an avatar of compassion. So I focus on my goal and pleasure and happiness are like the weather: I’m not making the weather, but it accompanies me as I live my own life to my own end. Whether it produces pleasure and/or happiness, the whole point as I see it is to be true to my own self. As a result it usually does produce pleasure and gives happiness, though I may be the only one who senses it and others may not see it at all, having different expectations and/or lifestyles.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, I like the point you made of just being oneself and the analogy of the weather, it is a great way to look at it, if your focused on doing what is good for you then you can’t really go wrong, and there will probably be people who don’t get it and put you down, but they don’t really matter much , that’s there bad not yours so they can’t really affect you. Life always has its moments and shows up in different ways, and it’s all about the growth it gives you😊

      Liked by 1 person

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